The Oscars are outdated and have lost their gloss – even today’s controversies are boring. By Christos Tsiolkas.

An elegy for the once-great Oscars

Reika Kirishima as Oto Kafuku and Hidetoshi Nishijima as her husband, Yūsuke, in Drive My Car.
Reika Kirishima as Oto Kafuku and Hidetoshi Nishijima as her husband, Yūsuke, in Drive My Car.
Credit: Janus Films

Does anyone really care about the Oscars anymore? My own faith in their legitimacy was destroyed in 1982, in my final year in high school. I had watched all five films nominated for Best Picture over that summer, and when it was announced that Hugh Hudson’s leaden historic drama Chariots of Fire had won over Warren Beatty’s lushly romantic Reds and Louis Malle’s exquisite chamber piece, Atlantic City, I turned off the television and muttered to myself, “They have no bloody idea!” And so, with the sanctimonious certainty of a 16-year-old, I dismissed every single voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I knew better: they were all wrong.

Of course, the disputing of the allotted prizes is an inevitable part of any awards process. What has played a larger part in the increasing irrelevance of the Oscars is the fragmentation of audiences inaugurated by the digital age. The pomp of the spectacle was always faintly ridiculous but, as a teenage film fan, it was hard not to get swept up in the hype. On the day of the ceremony, I would studiously avoid the radio and the television. That evening, my family would sit in front of the television for the delayed telecast. My brother would quickly get bored and peel off to his room. My father would soon be snoring. But my mother would stay up, at least until the actors’ awards were announced. I remember her cheering when Jane Fonda won Best Actress for her performance in Coming Home.

It’s been a long time since the ceremony has been screened on prime-time in Australia. The time slot keeps getting shunted, and large chunks of the awards are truncated to make room for ads. The assumption is that we are all watching it streamed. On the phone or on the laptop, with the movie stars reduced to Lilliputian dimensions, the sense of occasion is diminished. The very form is outdated.

Every year the producers seem desperate to revitalise it, snatching an emcee from late-night television one year, choosing an outré comedian the next. Some years they have dropped the hosts altogether. The comperes now are superfluous to the proceedings and the acceptance speeches are a form of speed-reading. You can see the fear in the winner’s eyes, the panic to thank colleagues, friends, lovers, family and deities in the allotted time.

Even the controversies have become boring. There was a genuine tension to the Oscars in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the dismantling of the studio system led to a generation of maverick filmmakers challenging the dominance of the established vanguard in Hollywood. I recall the audience hostility when Vanessa Redgrave won the supporting actress award for her work in Julia and she denounced the “Zionist thugs” who had opposed her nomination because of her support for Palestinian statehood. I also remember the choleric fury of Paddy Chayefsky later in the ceremony, accusing her of anti-Semitism. The fractures that were playing out in civil society were reflected in the audience. My mother might have been applauding Fonda, but Charlton Heston was sitting stony-faced in the auditorium.

A similar reaction attended Elia Kazan’s winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. Some in the audience refused to stand for a filmmaker who was famous for naming names during the Hollywood blacklist. I consider Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, A Face in the Crowd and America, America among the greatest films of all time, but I had some sympathy with those who chose not to salute his award. There was a real energy to this airing of political and historical contradictions that couldn’t be easily adjudged. In retrospect, these were the dying gasps of controversy for a historic period where cinema meant something, when it was the most exciting art on the planet.

For all the energy of #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, the contemporary liberal consensus among the Hollywood elite makes their urgency moot. There is something distasteful in filmmakers slapping each other’s backs for their progressive views, when to this day they ignore the wonderful cinema being made throughout much of the world, including the explosive and dynamic recent films coming out of Latin America. Black lives seemingly don’t matter that much south of Bel Air.

The joyless moralising so prevalent in contemporary politics has also played a part in making the ceremony less entertaining. By the time we were adults, most of us who cared about cinema knew not to take the Oscars seriously. However, there was an enjoyment in getting together with friends to watch the ceremony, a camp pleasure in dissing the outfits the actors were wearing on the red carpet, in cheekily declaring that the Holocaust film was a shoo-in for Best Documentary or that the octogenarian was finally going to win Best Actress. But we also knew that Hollywood’s roots lay in the immigrant Jewish experience, and we knew too that many brilliant artists and technicians had been stymied and blacklisted, or had had their visions compromised and distorted. Our sarcasm was wicked but not mean, invested in our shared love for the history of classic cinema.

Such cheekiness feels verboten now. Irony and nuance are now regarded with suspicion. Denuded of waspishness, camp is reduced to the celebration of mere pastiche and kitsch. I was initially incredulous when I heard that Adam McKay’s execrable Don’t Look Up had been nominated for Best Film. Formally aping Armando Iannucci’s darkly satirical political comedies yet eschewing the lacerating bite of his invective, it is an overblown, witless mess. McKay’s staging is inept and the film is insufferably cloying and self-congratulatory. But it makes total sense that it has been valorised by the Oscars. This is what bravery in Hollywood looks like: regurgitating ecological ideas that have become well and truly institutionalised and corporatised. It’s a terrible film and its nomination further diminishes the awards’ authority.

Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical Belfast isn’t inept but it is schmaltzy. The inspiration is clearly Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 Roma: as with that film, the cinematography is in crisp black and white and we are looking through the eyes of a child at an explosive historic moment. Whereas the power of Cuarón’s film came from the dissonance between nostalgic memories and harsh reality, Branagh’s screenplay romanticises the child’s perspective. It is as if the director’s outlook and understanding of life and of politics hasn’t matured since childhood.

The performances are one-note. The only actor who seems to want to invest her work with some grittiness, some tension, is Caitríona Balfe. The crudeness of the conception sabotages her performance and her rawness seems out of place. But she’s the only vital part of the film, the only reason to go see it. The Oscars have ignored her performance. Instead, they have rewarded Ciarán Hinds’ and Judi Dench’s tedious and caricatured mugging with nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Of the nominated films I have seen, the finest is Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World. There’s real grace in Trier’s script and his direction, in how he manages to illuminate and teasingly mock the pieties of the contemporary bourgeois zeitgeist, while at the same time taking seriously the melancholy and disconnectedness of its central characters. Even though the number of films nominated in the Best Picture category has increased over the past decade, Trier’s film didn’t make the final list. I suspect its tentativeness, and its refusal to opt for simplistic moral conclusions, unsettled the academy.

Of the Best Film nominees, I’d like to see Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car win Best Picture. It’s too long but there are real moments of elegance in it, and the questions of the relationship of language to creative expression that it raises are provoking. I’d also be happy if Denis Villeneuve’s Dune won. It too is indulgent and the script is sophomoric, but its visual elan is at times breathtaking. Omicron made me miss Spielberg’s remounting of West Side Story. I’m holding out to see it on the big screen.

The bookies have Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog as the frontrunner but my gut tells me Belfast will get the gong. It is sentimental and it’s slick, and maybe some things about the Oscars will never change.

It would be nice to be proved wrong. 



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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Requiem for a dream".

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